Midsummer is generally the time to start seeds for fall crops, depending on your region. Here in the Ozarks, sowing tiny seeds like turnips, rutabagas, onions, leeks and spinach directly in the garden can be difficult, especially in hot, dry weather.
The seeds usually come out of the packet too quickly without enough space between the seeds. Also, heavy summer rains can wash the seeds into a pile before they have sprouted. And, tiny sprouts dry out quickly. Challenges are compounded in summer for starting lettuce, spinach and turnip seeds that need cooler temperatures to germinate.
Fortunately, there is a simple, quick technique to help your veggies sprout during the heat of summer.
Using Discarded Seed Trays
The next time you’re at a store that sells seedlings, ask if you can have a few of the empty plastic seedling trays. They are discarded by the millions each season. The trays with openings about 3 inches square (or round) work well for this project. Smaller openings don’t hold enough soil and larger openings use up a lot of potting mix.
To begin, cut or tear 1 inch strips of fabric long enough to reach the bottom of the tray opening, yet leaving about a 1 inch tab on each side (using the same principle as those plastic tabs for getting batteries out of clock radios easily). This fabric strip will be used to lift out the soil and seedlings in one block like a piece of cake, only better for you.
Next, fill the compartment with moist potting soil. Root crops can be planted in the multi-block or cluster method, allowing more plants to be grown in a small space. The fruits will not get as large as if grown singly to maturity, but they can be enjoyed as babies or eaten gradually to thin them.
Planting in clusters works well with bulb, root and stem-type vegetables. Depending on the size of your tray compartments and the vegetable you’re planting, place about 3-5 seeds in each cell. Remember that beet, Swiss chard and New Zealand spinach seeds are already a cluster of seeds per pod. One or two seeds per cell are sufficient. Leafy crops can also be started in trays, but should be thinned when transplanted. Cover the seeds with soil as usual. Label your trays with good tape or sticks and permanent marker, not pencil. (Trust me. You won’t remember what you planted if you don’t label them immediately.)
Water lightly and place in a sunny area, indoors or out, depending on your climate. When the seedlings have one or two true leaves, and have been exposed to the outside environment for a few days, they’re ready to move to the garden. (If planting spinach, transplant it in the garden soon after sprouting. Spinach does not like to have its roots disturbed.)
Lifting Seedlings Gently
Test the condition of your soil by gently lifting the fabric tabs on one cell. The entire cube, or cylinder, should come out easily and retain all or most of the soil. If necessary, allow the soil to dry out a bit. Or, lightly water it. This step will depend on the potting mix you used.
Ideally, you will want to transplant your seedlings in the evening with rain sprinkles in the forecast. Plant your crop one compartment at a time. Make a hole just large enough for the soil cube. The seedlings should be planted at the same depth they grew in the tray. Do not touch the plant stems, and do not plant them too deep, which can allow diseases to develop.
The fabric strip can be peeled off of the soil blocks and saved. Or, if they’re made of a natural material, simply compost the strips. It doesn’t hurt to just leave them attached to the soil cube, either.
To see more photos of the multi-block planting method, visit our blog. And here are some great Mother Earth News articles: Seed starting by Barbara Pleasant, Start seeds indoors by Gail Damerow and Simple seed starting by Vicki Mattern.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.